Middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suárez) is living in Madrid with her partner Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). They are both about to move to Portugal when she receives news of her estranged daughter Antía, who disappeared completely from her life twelve years prior. Hoping that Antía might communicate with her by mail, Julieta abandons the trip to Portugal and moves into her former apartment where she drafts a long confessional, detailing the events of her life up to the present point. In extended flashbacks, we witness Julieta’s (younger, played by Adriana Ugarte) affair with Xoan (Daniel Grao), a Galician fisherman; the birth of her daughter; the disintegration of her relationship and the tragic accident that leads Julieta spiralling into depression and causes the teenaged Antía (Blanca Parés/ Priscilla Delgado) to permanently abandon her mother.
Julieta is Pedro Almodóvar’s nineteenth feature film. Distinguished largely by his penchant for the melodramatic, what also characterises Almodóvar’s films is the way in which he tempers his melodramas. Volver has its share of laughs, while Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Kika are outright comedies. If Talk to Her borders on the surreal, Live Flesh and Bad Education are characterised by flashes of violence and deviations into crime. But Julieta is melodrama straight through. It’s absolutely not funny, and there are no extracurricular excursions into the strange or the vulgar. It’s hard to escape the sense of something lacking, of an artist mistakenly reining in the idiosyncrasies that make his films unique in the first place. Essentially, the conundrum of Julieta is that if it misses the director’s more extravagant tendencies, it would have been entirely inappropriate for those same extravagances to be included.
What remains, however, is the striking sense of empathy that characterises all his movies, with particular emphasis on well-drawn, sympathetic female characters. In terms of direction and the performances he seems able to conjure from his actors, this is what distinguishes Julieta, if not exactly as a great film, but which propels it enough beyond mere soap opera to make it worthwhile.
The major outlines of the events within the film are not remarkable, but the mother-daughter relationship that happens between them is full of well-observed intricacies, and the performances are fantastic by its largely female cast.
It also helps that the story unfolds in a sufficiently absorbing manner as to never become boring. While it may be a melodrama of relationships, Almodóvar is canny about his reveals, motivations and the way his drama plays out to leave you with sufficient reason for watching -plot wise- until the end. Nor does it hurt that the movie is beautifully filmed, its Madrid cityscapes, midnight trains and glimpses of the Mediterranean equally beguiling.
The film does suffer from being a bit one-note though. Devoid of any humour, it takes itself very seriously, always threatening to be consumed by its own melodramatics, and there isn’t really any relief. Almodóvar has made finer films, but Julieta is a worthy Spanish slice-of-life which in its better moments is still very affecting.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10